Child custody arrangements can be difficult under the best of circumstances, but when one parent’s circumstances change, arrangements that may have been appropriate just after the marriage or separation may no longer be suitable. In Maryland, the circuit court may modify a custody order when a parent’s circumstances change. What circumstances warrant a modification?
A two-step process is used to determine whether it is appropriate to modify a custody arrangement. First, is there a material change? By “material change,” the court means is there a change that affects the child’s welfare If so, the court must ask, what are the best interests of the child just as it did during the first custody hearing.
One material change that has occurred in some cases is the mental well-being of a parent. A parent with a major psychiatric condition may face more challenges parenting with the level of care than a parent who does not. Of course, since around 1 in 5 Americans have a diagnosed psychiatric condition, there are many parents with psychiatric conditions who need no intervention. There are, however, some who may be erratic in how they interact with their child and those cases require special attention and understanding from attorneys and judges.
In a case last year that revolved around this issue, a Maryland appellate court considered whether a mother’s troubled relationship with her child warranted the circuit court’s modification of the original custody arrangement. In that case, a mother’s relationship with her son deteriorated after her divorce.
She sent the son to the father’s on multiple occasions because she was unable to manage him. She assaulted the father’s new romantic partner at a youth baseball game. When the son refused to visit her in accord with the custody arrangement and the father did not force him to do so, she told the father he was in violation of their agreement. The father asked the court to modify the custody arrangement and later filed for a mental health evaluation of the mother.
A custody modification trial occurred. The father testified that the mother treated the son differently than she treated her daughters. The son’s psychologist testified that the son was upset and unsure that his relationship with his mother could be resolved. The father also submitted a report that diagnosed the mother with bipolar disorder. The mother objected to the report, claiming it was prejudicial. When examined on the stand, the mother testified that the diagnosis for bipolar disorder was in the report she disputed.
The mother argued that since she had experienced a mental illness during the marriage it was not a material change of circumstance in and of itself. The circuit court determined that while the illness was not a material change, the worsening of her symptoms was. The court noted the assault, the mother’s lack of control over her actions, her tendency to minimize responsibility and difficulty in appreciating the effects of her actions on the son especially and the family overall. The court was particularly concerned that the mother did not understand the damage she had done to her son.
The mother appealed on the grounds that the circuit court had improperly considered the report that diagnosed her as bipolar. The appellate court disagreed. It found that the circuit court’s modification of the order in light of evidence that the mother’s behavior had changed since the first order was proper.
Situations like the one described above are very difficult. An experienced attorney can make a big difference. If you are going through a difficult family law problem, contact our office via the online form for a legal consultation.
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